VIET NAM – Complete Travel Guide

(Updated October 2018)

Sadly, sometimes I cannot cherish a place enough – because there are some negative points that have a too strong impact or I’m not ready for the place or I simply need something different the moment I’m there. And it’s only afterward that I reminisce and realize how cool it actually was.
Viet Nam is a place like this.

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Before I went there, I’ve heard from so many people how great it was and that it was even much nicer than Thailand, so I really looked forward going there, yet I was quite disappointed. Maybe my expectations were so high because of all the tales.

Anyway, now that I think back, it is quite cool. It’s probably due to its political past that it is so very different from the other South East Asian countries, and maybe that’s confusing at first, but there are so many good things there, it’s absolutely worth it and I think, I’ll be back somewhen soon.

Everybody has heard that there was a Vietnam War – sadly mainly because the US got involved.
But the conflict did not start with the intrusion of the US troops.

I am no historian, but I’d like to give you a brief historic précis. This is by no means a detailed, pinpoint documentation of Viet Nam’s history – it’s a strongly simplified overview. I just quote the ‘big points’, which is hard enough since there were so many twists and turns and much was connected to events far away. Mind you, even the exact date of the beginning of war cannot be determined since it depends on which conflict or event you consider (and it’s not 196   – that’s when the US got involved, but that’s not when the war in Viet Nam started). For further, deeper insight, please consult relevant literature.

The first Vietnamese state was established in 968. At that time the region was historically and culturally built like every other Asian and Chinese culture.
The first Europeans came about 1500 – and, like in Central and South America – they were Catholic missionaries, mainly Jesuits and Franciscans. And the story went as nicely as in Central and South America or any other region where these good people thought they had to implement their idea of civilization.

Sadly, they found supporters who profited from their system everywhere, in Viet Nam, too.
Towards the end of the 18th-century emperor Gia Long asked the French for stronger support, and once there, they extended their influence on Cambodia, too. Under the French protection, the country developed just like Latin American countries under the Spanish – there were few land barons and a vast majority of poor people.

A lesson that every oppressor has to learn eventually: You can exploit people only so long.

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Catholic Notre Dame Cathedral in at one time Buddhist Viet Nam.
In Viet Nam, the first uprisings began around 1900. At that time also Vietnamese students came back from Europe where they had experienced national movements and heard of this new thing – communism.

One of them was Ho Chi Minh who came back to Viet Nam in 1941 and founded the Viet Minh, a group consisting of i. a. freedom fighters and communists. By that time – during WWII – Viet Nam was, like many Asian countries, attacked by Japan, an ally of Nazi-Germany and its collaborator Vichy France.
And at this point, history added an afterwit: Fighting the fascist forces and their allies, the – nota bene – United States of America supported the communist Viet Minh lead by Ho Chi Minh! (And since this worked out so well, they repeatedly supported fighting groups who eventually turned around and – literally – beat them with their own weapons).

In 1945, Viet Nam became the first independent state of South East Asia – founded according to the United States Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution.

By that time the country got divided into the China-oriented North and the Catholic South, forced by the French. That they were tending North, finally lead to the Indochina war that the Vietnamese guerilla won in 1954.

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Commemorating tiles on Quan Thanh in Hanoi.

Following the Geneva conference in 1954, the Viet Minh settled in the North of today’s Viet Nam behind the 17th degree of latitude. The South was ruled emperor Bảo Đại under Western influence. All of Indochina, Laos, and Cambodia received their state independence.
For July 1956, free elections were agreed throughout Vietnam, monitored by representatives of the NATO, the Warsaw Pact, and India. But Bảo Đại’s successor, Ngô Đình Diệm, finally denied these elections, and the conflicts between North and South Vietnam ultimately resulted in the second Indochina, better known as the Vietnam War.

Picture from the Hoa Lo Prison Hanoi
A picture at the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi: Everybody has his own perspective of the war. I’m not sure whether the souvenirs made the American war prisoners’ memories much nicer…

In fear of the strengthening of communism in the region, in 1964 the USA again entered the conflict, this time against Ho Chi Minh. In 1973 the US withdrew its troops, but supported the South Vietnamese by supplying them with weapons.

Ho Chi Minh pictures
Take your pick: Ho Chi Minh in all ages and stages
 (at a gift shop next to the Ho Chi Minh museum in Hanoi) 

The war officially ended in 1975, and Viet Nam was reunited in 1976.

I think it’s important to look at the ‘big picture’, to have an idea what was going on earlier, and that it was not that the ‘red hordes’ took over willy-nilly, but that they intended to free the country from its colonialists and oppressors. Their idea was to end despotism, injustice, and exploitation.
This was often the underlying idea – but sadly it often continued and ended in another kind of despotism and injustice.

However, my personal observation and opinion are that in ‘developing countries’ the socialist idea and politics did good – free education, free healthcare, equal rights for women etc. But of course on a long-term the result is not convincing, no matter how many cheesy slogans they write on the walls.

For us Europeans having lived with the iron curtain for decades and having witnessed how complicated it was to let bygones be bygones resp. to cope with the past, it’s amazing how the people of Vietnam get over the past, embraces the changes.

Communist propaganda and a Buddhist Temple
Obviously, there is enough space for different kinds of faith.

Actually, this difference in dealing with Socialism in comparison with European countries isn’t that new. The Vietnamese way seems to be less doctrinal and obstinate. Already the fact that Buddhist monks joined the Socialist fight against Colonial France and later the American troops shows the different approach. In Europe, every form of religion was banned by the Socialist government (according to Marx’ saying “Religion is the opium of the people”). Well, in the Far East they obviously find their own way to deal with opium.

It’s baffling to see the traditional, naive, right in your face propaganda at every corner – including the inevitable red flags, pentagrams and hammer and sickle. And right next to it people living their hyper-capitalistic reality selling you everything.

Colonial building, communist propaganda and a skyscraper in HCMC
A family picture of Viet Nam’s different eras: Colonialism, Communism, and Capitalism.

The Socialist Republic of Viet Nam has a population of more than 90 million people living on a  329.560 sq km (about 127,000 sq miles) terrain. While the South and North are low, flat deltas, the central highlands and the far North towards China are hilly or even mountainous. While the South is tropically hot and humid, the North is noticeably cool and rainy. In Viet Nam you pay with Dong (VND) – that you can convert e. g. on XE.

This is just the general introduction to the country. In the following nine chapters (links below) you’ll get extended information on each place I’ve been.

This is the route I’ve travelled….

…and these are the places I’ve visited – with extended information to each of them:

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Complete Guide to HO CHI MINH CITY

(Updated October 2018)

Most travellers arrive at Hồ Chí Minh City (in Vietnamese ‘Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh’ – so I guess thành phố means ‘city’ in Vietnamese) in the Southern, tropical part of Viet Nam. This mega city has about 8.5 million inhabitants – and 7.4 million motorbikes – and is Viet Nam’s largest city and its commercial and industrial center.

Traffic in Hồ Chí Minh City
Traffic in Hồ Chí Minh City.

To get from the airport into the city center is very convenient – you can even take a public bus that goes to the Quách Thị Trang square. But this is rather for the flight back or for possible domestic flights since after the long flight to Viet Nam, you certainly do want to take a cab. To save you the hassle and bargaining, there is a stand at the airport where you pay your trip in advance (the fare depends on the section of town you are going to) so you have to hand the driver only a voucher.

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Morning traffic and two street vendors on Trương Định road.

Since most of the city’s points of interest are located in the neighborhood of the old colonial center, the city could be easily walkable. Why the subjunctive? Because there is the above-mentioned number of motorbikes – and now add a significant number of cars and buses and other vehicles driving on streets with very, very few traffic signals (in Hồ Chí Minh City they at least have some traffic lights, you’ll come to parts where they probably haven’t even heard of such thing) which makes every crossing a big adventure and survival training. And over the day all these vehicles belch exhaust gases so from the early afternoon you feel like breathing air without any oxygen; it’s really bad.

Anyway, to be positive, let’s start the day at a park, namely the Cong Vien Van Hoa Park – which is rather a small forest. It’s cool and nice in the shade of the trees so that you can see many – surprisingly old – folks doing their fitness program like walking and jogging and some sort of Thai Chi where they are waving huge hand fans. There are playgrounds for kids, picnic areas and even two Buddhist temples in the park, and on the Westside, on Cách Mạng Tháng Tám, you’ll find many coffee shops. A fresh start of a long day.

Young pioneers visiting the park
Young pioneers on a field trip to Cong Vien Van Hoa Park

I’m just telling you that there is a Reunification Palace to be seen, I do not exactly recommend to go there because it’s the ugliest concrete building you can imagine – very 70s socialist architecture.

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Some delegation’s souvenir picture in front of Ho Chi Minh City’s ugliest building, the Reunification Palace.

So coming down from the Cong Vien Van Hoa Park turn left and you’ll reach the famous – and enormous – Ben-Thanh-Market which is a tourist market. I don’t say it’s bad, but it’s touristy so beware of fantasy-prices. Actually, I’ve found a good way of estimating a real price: Go to the governmental section towards Phan Bội Châu on the East side. They have fixed prices – no bargaining. So this gives you an idea of how much you should pay for things; if you don’t want to bargain at all, do your shopping here.

As you might know by now, I love art and I go to museums and galleries, so I recommend the Museum of Fine Arts South of Ben-Thanh-Market – and most of all South of  Quách Thị Trang square (whereby it’s not a square but a traffic circle which makes crossing even more interesting), one of the worst places to cross – it’s a circle of never-ending traffic.

How to survive crossing streets in Viet Nam

It’s absolutely terrifying – even for me, and I do walk criss-cross allover the world. But don’t even think about waiting for a good moment to cross, this good moment will never come, so right now is as good as any. Just start walking. Yes, I know that there are hundreds of motorcycles and cars coming, but you start walking. Walk in an even, moderate tempo, don’t run and don’t stop, just walk. This way the drivers can estimate your pace and adapt; if you run or stop, you’ll confuse them. Walk a little angular towards the traffic as if you walk into the traffic (but please do not actually do so!). While observing the traffic, keep walking until you reach the other side of the street. This is how you’ll have to do it for the time being in Viet Nam, so good luck.

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I’d sacrifice my life for art – in Ho Chi Minh City almost literally.

So after you crossed Công viên Quách Thị Trang keep walking one block South to the Museum. In a palatial neoclassicist villa are displayed mainly paintings from different eras as well as statues from the Cham and Funan epoch. The post-war, heavily ideological art with its überclear message deems at bit…bizarre.

Sculpture at the Museum of fine arts in HCMC
A brave farmer (who according to the size of his chest does a lot of work out) with his buffalos.

Quách Phong: Following the communist party's guidance
Quách Phong: “Following the communist party’s guidance” – interestingly a painting from 1938

Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Art  
97 Phó Đức Chính
Nguyễn Thái Bình
Quận 1
Hồ Chí Minh City
Phone: + 84 – 90 – 483 00 90 

Open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 a. m. to 5 p. m. 

After this highly socialist impact, you might want to discover HCMC’s capitalist side!? The best way to get to the Dong Khoi, a boulevard that used to be already during the colonial era a posh strolling promenade, you better walk along Huỳnh Thúc Kháng. Don’t get fooled by the proximity to the river and refrain from walking down Ton Duc Thang. That way is longer and not as idyllic as you might expect. 

Before you get to Dong Khoi, you might want to hang out a bit on Nguyen Hue, a pedestrian area facing Hồ Chí Minh’s memorial, standing between the legendary Hotel Rex where the American 5 o’ clock conferences during the war took place, and the old town hall that today houses the national committee. 

Ho Chi MInh
Hồ Chí Minh – “Uncle Hồ” – greeting its people and a couple of tourists from his pedestal in front of the old townhall.

This might be a good moment to clear up the confusion about the city’s name: 

Some people call it Hồ Chí Minh City, some people call it Saigon. Some people do it randomly, some do it on purpose. The fact is that the city used to be called Saigon before and was named after the communist party’s leader Hồ Chí Minh after the war. This is very common in these circles: St. Petersburg was named Leningrad after the Soviet revolution (and back to St. Petersburg in 1991). Chemnitz in Eastern Germany was named Karl-Marx-Stadt after WWII (and back to Chemnitz in 1990). So some people, who are not happy with the result of the war, keep calling it Saigon to underline their disapprobation. Some call it Saigon because it’s much shorter. 
I call it Hồ Chí Minh City because it’s the city’s official name.

Next to all the red flags, to the faithful pioneers, to the propaganda and dogma, it seems preposterous to walk along stores such as Luis Vuitton, Prada & Co. Just go and see for yourself. It’s amazing how all this seems to go together nicely.

While there are these high-class stores, there are agreeably few chain restaurants and shops like McDonalds, Starbucks, or Seven Eleven. I appreciated that a lot. Who needs American fast food in the cradle of street food culture?! Who wants Starbucks in world’s seconds largest coffee exporting country?! Viet Nam has its own chains of coffee and coffee products, and while “White Coffee” is just average (and tends to be very sweet), “Trung Nguyên Coffee” is really outstanding. While you are on Dong Khoi – there is one at No. 80.

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Lovely coffee break at Trung Nguyên Coffee on Dong Khoi; while in Vienna you get a glass of water with your coffee, in Viet Nam they serve it with a glass of iced green tea.
Foto Shoot in front of Notre Dame at HCMC
Seeing this couple, I still believed to witness a wedding. After a while I found out,
that the many ‘weddings’ I saw everywhere were simply commercial photo shootings.

Strolling Dong Khoi up North leads you back to colonial times: There is the Theater and the Hotel Continental, then comes the French colonial landmark Notre Dame cathedral, that besides the name has nothing in common with the Parisian relative: instead of Gothic, this one is built in a neo-roman style from stones imported from Marseille.

Finally, there is the neo-classicist Hotel des Postes, that still is a post office.

Hotel de Postes HCMC
On of HCMC’s colonial icons: The Hotel des Postes – a still operating post office.

There are also some Buddhist temples in HCMC but nothing exciting compared to Thailand or even Hanoi. It shows that the South was (was or is?)  pro-colonial Catholic.

A museum worth seeing is the Southern Vietnam Women Museum that on the first floor focuses on the traditional life and on the second floor on the women’s role during the war which was a very active and important one. Let me tell you, Vietnamese women are tough – then and now.

Wallpainting Southern Women's Museum
An excerpt from a wall painting depicting the heroic role of women during the war; and on the upper left the
inevitable Hồ Chí Minh.

Southern Vietnam Women Museum
202 Võ Thị Sáu, phường 7
Quận 3
Hồ Chí Minh
Phone: + 84 – 28 – 39 32 55 19

The Museum is open daily from 7.30 a. m. to 11.30 a. m. and from 1.30 p. m. to 5 p. m.

Cho Lon

Hồ Chí Minh City is also a great gateway for interesting day trips. The first is just around the corner and nowadays part of HCMC: The Chinese borough of Cho Lon. Easily accessible by bus No. 1 from Ben-Thanh-Market.

For obvious reason, the market in Cho Lon is much less touristy than the Ben-Thanh-Market and therefore has more groceries than knick-knack.

On the way back I recommend to walk along Nguyen Trai – it’s a residential street which is already interesting, but in addition on the Northern side of the street you’ll find three beautiful Buddhist temples: Ha Chuong Hoi Quan on No. 802, Hội quán Nghĩa An on No. 676, which I’ve found the nicest for its preciously decorated ceramic gate, and Ba Thien Hau Temple on No. 710.

Roof of a Temple in Cho Lon HCMC
Incredibly artistic decorated roofs in the Chinese borough of HCMC.

Since the bus back to the city center goes along this street, you can just hop on as soon as you’re ready temple watching.

Market in Cho Lon HCMC
Bình Tây Market in HCMC’s Chinatown Chợ Lớn – a vast variety, but Chợ Thái Bình in the city center had the better prices.

By the way, my favorite market in HCMC is neither of the two big ones already mentioned, but a small place at the Western end of the central park (the central park is North of the backpacker district) poetically called Pacific Market Morning (Chợ Thái Bình).
It’s an unimpressive little place but I bought first-rate coffee there at an unbeatable price (after I dared to wake the vendor sleeping behind the counter).

Across the street at 185 D Cong Quynh is the unremarkable entrance to a home for blind people where you can also get an excellent massage at a likewise excellent price.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Well, the famous Cu Chi tunnels – they have to be visited. 

This was one of the things that confused me in Viet Nam – how they deal with the past especially since this past still reaches into the present and affects people’s lives, i. e. they fought a war, they won the war, they live in a socialist system – but they find so many different ways dealing with it.

The first one is obvious and not unusual: pure and utter pride and propaganda.
This is what you get as soon as you reach the site: You have to watch a film that should be called “Viet Nam’s way to socialism for dummies”. It shows in an extremely simplified fashion how happy Vietnamese people were – women in Ao Dais are sashaying over fields, mildly humming cheesy tunes, everything was peaches and cream. Then – tadadadaaa – the American villains came and messed up this harmony. But they didn’t reckon the brave Vietnamese’ – who of course were all devoted communists – resistance….you know the rest of the story. The whole film seems to be filmed in black and white and in a really bad quality to give it a historic touch.

Yes, yes get to see the tunnels and they explain you the traps that the Viet Cong, who were ordinary troops as well as a guerrilla army,  put up in the jungle and the rice paddies.

While Americans had all these high tech mass destruction weapons, the Vietnamese relied on all these quite medieval traps where they covered holes with twigs and leaves and when the enemy fell in the trap, he got impaled on some pointy bamboo sticks.

Then there were trapdoors built after the iron maiden model – all sorts of sharp, spiky stuff.

While our tired and sluggish guide explained all these torments to us, there was a constant gunfire in the background. I thought it was some sound effect to make the visit more realistic and dramatic, but no way, turns out there is a shooting ranch right next to the Cu Chi tunnel memorial.

Now if that’s not empathic and tasteful than I don’t know what is.

Cu Chi Tunnels
Some sort of war Disney Land: Want a souvenir picture with Viet Cong fighters?

When taking an organized tour from HCMC to Cu Chi, usually there is another visit included: They take you to the Cao Dai Temple, and that’s really very nice. While the devotees are all dressed in white, the temple and the premises are very colorful, and so is the faith: Caodaists believe that all religions are ultimately the same and mix the individual aspects willy-nilly.

Cao Dai Temple
 Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad and Confucius are honored at the Cao Dai Temple; and once they are on it, they also throw in Joan of Arc and Julius Cesar.

Friendly Caodaists before service.
Do you want to read about all the other beautiful places I’ve visited in Viet Nam? 
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Complete Guide to MUI NE

Mui Ne – now what a disappointment that was! After two days without oxygen I was so much looking forward to a remote place, to a hippie village along a deserted, white beach…well, Mui Ne is nothing like that.

The sight of the fish market right on the beach in the wee hours makes up for any flaw Mui Ne might have.

I took the bus from HCMC – the hotel had arranged the trip for me and screwed me over big time, I paid like triple of the regular fare.
Plus I didn’t know Vietnamese buses, so I’d thought that an upper seat is better. Getting on the bus, I stood corrected: In most overland buses in Viet Nam you are basically climbing on a sort of stretcher with your legs in a metal box.
I assume if you happen to have Vietnamese legs, it’s quite comfortable. I assume since I don’t know – I do not have Vietnamese legs.
Actually, it’s not so bad, but it’s definitely more comfortable and less shaky to sit in one of the lower seats.  Anyway, as we reached Mui Ne, there was no bus station so the driver just kicked me out somewhere along the main street.
Somehow I tend to get kicked out by bus drivers.

Bus to Mui Ne
HCMC to Mui Ne – travelling in style.

Mui Ne is a beach destination, but Mui Ne didn’t decide yet on what kind of beach destination it wants to be. I expected it to be a bit hippie-ish, with basic guest houses, street food, all that jazz. But for that, there are far too many big, more expensive hotels of this mass tourist all-inclusive style, and they are occupying the nicer beach parts. Some Russian couple, some Russian families – this is Mui Ne’s tourist crowd and it comes with signs and menus in Cyrillic.

Breakfast vendors on the red dunes.

Besides the mediocre beach, Mui Ne is ‘famous’ for its dunes – the yellow dunes and the red dunes, and the big thing is to see them at sunrise. If you don’t want to pay a price that’s an issue from the organizer’s imagination, you have to walk around and check and compare and bargain.

Seeing the dunes at sunrise means rising before the sun – they picked me up at 4 a. m. and we drove in a group of five or six first to the dunes where already many other groups of five or six were marching up the sand. It baffles me how people can be so cheery and noisy at 4:30 a. m.

Dunes Mui Ne
Good day, sunshine! Sunrise over the yellow dunes of Mui Ne.

While the dunes – probably also due to the helter-skelter from the other early risers – didn’t impress me that much, the view of the fishermen coming in from the sea at Mui Ne left me speechless: The atmosphere of the bustle on the wide stretch of tideland, women under their conic hats haggling over fish prices, men carrying huge baskets of mussels and conchs, hundreds of boats, this perfect scenario at the break of day was just too beautiful and made the whole trip to otherwise dull Mui Ne worth it.

Fishermen in Mui Ne
I take that one. Fish shopping on a Sunday morning.

In the evening I had the chance to sample some of the morning’s catch. At the Seahorse Bistro you choose which fish and shellfish you want on your barbecue and they grill it before your eyes in a very pleasant garden setting. Wonderful seafood dinner at a reasonable price.

To continue to Da Lat – the cool, supposedly ‘French’ town in the fertile hills of the Southern part of the central uplands – I had to do some of the tiresome research regarding prices. Finally, my landlady offered to arrange a bus at an acceptable price.

Learn in the next chapter how this worked out for me.

Do you want to read about all the other beautiful places I’ve visited in Viet Nam? 
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Complete Guide to HUE

(Updated October 2018)

More great building complexes, more rich Asian history: Viet Nam’s former capital Hue had just enough history and majesty to keep up with beautiful Hoi An.

Gate at Citadel in Hue
Exit the citadel through the “Gate of Humanity”. Beautiful name for a beautiful gate.

The main attraction is the Đại Nội Citadel that used to be the emperors’ seat till 1945. Surrounded by thick stone walls and a moat, it protected the emperor against…his enemies, I presume.

To get from Hoi An to Hue I booked a shuttle that included a couple of stops. Actually only two of them were really worth it – the ‘Marble Mountain’, which is a group of five mountains from marble and limestone whose names represent the five elements.

Row of pagodas on the Marble Mountain.

It is a spiritual pilgrimage site, counting with several Buddhist pagodas and caves. The other impressive place was the Bach Ma National Park way up high in the mountains, where within minutes we got wrapped in clouds – a beautiful and mystic experience.

Bach Ma National Park
There was a natural veil laying over us.

The best thing about having chosen this option was that there were only two of us in the car – Elin from Estonia and me. Luckily we clicked immediately and didn’t spend only the (day-) trip to Hue together, but did the sightseeing tour on the following day together, too.

The weather wasn’t still great – unfortunately you can see that on my pictures – but Elin and I were lucky to have found an agency that sold us a day trip for an incredible price (I think we paid about 7 or 8 $ for the whole trip including a (not so good) lunch – but of course the entrance fees were not included).

The bus tour took us to the Citadel housing the ancient imperial city with large courtyards surrounded by beautifully decorated pavilions, where we got an idea how powerful the emperors must have been – until they made themselves the French occupants’ puppets.

The replica of the Royal Theatre.

While this feudalistic heritage was rather dismissed during the strict communist era, since 1993 the most important complexes made it to the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Citadel of Hue
We had our own Royal Theatre: Not only did Elin dress in some emperor’s robes, she also got herself a royal sidekick. Oh, with this much fun, who cares about the historical structures?!

Selfie with tourist
This young visitor seems to be far more attractive than the old stones of the ancient palace.
Vietnamese love to take pictures of and with foreigners.

Not far from the Citadel is the posh neighborhood Kim Long, famous for its beautiful garden houses constructed for the Concubines, Mandarins, and Statesmen.

Thien Mu Pagoda
Thien Mu Pagoda

Before finally going to the famous kings’ tombs we made a short stop at the Thien Mu Pagoda on the Northern banks of the Perfume River. With its seven storeys high Phước Duyên tower it’s Viet Nam’s highest pagoda.

The tombs

The “Forbidden City”, modeled on the one in Peking, was the Nguyen. Besides this site, the main reason to visit the city of Hue is the ancient royal tombs. Hue used to be the Vietnamese capital from 1802 till 1945, so the emperor’s lived – and died – here.

Although there are seven known royal tombs, only three are significantly more visited since they are in better condition and closer to the city: – these are the tombs of Lang Minh Mang, Lang Tu Duc, and Lang Khai Dinh. If you are on a tour and do visit not only the Citadel but also the three tombs, you might want to by a combined ticket for about VND 360,000 (approx. US$ 16); for obvious reason – the whole tour cost us less than this – the entrance was not included in our trip, but we were able to buy the ticket from our guide.

The oldest tomb is Lang Minh Mang, who was the second emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty of Vietnam, reigning from 1820 until 1840. The site was constructed from 1841 to 1843, hence after the emperor’s death. He was laid to rest after the tomb’s completion in 1843.

Lang Minh Mang
Lang Minh Mang, the burial site of the second Nguyen emperor – located closest to the city of Hue.

Long Tu Duc was built from 1864 to 1867 and is the only site where the emperor actually moved his household to, building a Forbidden City of his own. Tu Duc lived from 1848 to 1883 and reigned the longest.

The newest, very much influenced by French fashion, is Long Khai Dinh. Khai Dinh’s tomb. Built from 1920 to 1931 in an eclectic style mix mainly of concrete and preceded by a wrought-iron triple gate, this tomb is definitely constructed in the nicest spot, overlooking the perfume river and the lush rolling hills. The most beautiful detail are the man-high statues of animals and men on the first level.

Lang Khai Dinh
Lang Khai Dinh

I cannot say for sure where it was, but at one of the tombs was a huge group of teenage girls, completely oblivious to the ruins, all hyper because of a young man in a traditional Vietnamese outfit.

While the teenage crowd was standing in line for selfies, an obviously professional photographer was patiently waiting for his turn. Eventually, the young man and his entourage including the photographer left leaving a screaming teenage crowd behind.

The funny thing is, that if there haven’t been the hyper teenagers, I would have never known that this young man is obviously a big shot megastar in Viet Nam. We Europeans and North Americans believe to rule the world not only economically, but also culturally, completely ignoring the fact that there is a huge entertainment market being occupied by big local stars. Or how many Asian pop stars do you know? Correct, one – Psy from South Korea.

Joss Sticks
I wonder if there is a sightseeing tour without a shopping opportunity anywhere in the world.
But since they smell great and look pretty, handmade joss sticks do make a great souvenir.

Wanna ending a perfect day with a perfect dinner and don’t need to stick to Vietnamese food for once? We had excellent Indian food at Ganesh Indian restaurant on 34 Nguyen Tri Phuong Street.

Actually, the restaurant was my last stop – in the evening I had a flight from Hue to Hanoi.

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Complete Guide to HOI AN

(Updated October 2018)

I think the reason that I first was a bit disappointed by Viet Nam was the relative absence of this Asian sweetness and abundance of luxuriously decorated temples and mysterious tales. For instance, in comparison to Thailand, it felt so austere or even mundane. It’s more about everyday life than about magic. On the one hand, I liked it, on the other, I missed a little enchantment.

Phuc Quien assembly hall
Phuc Quien assembly hall – one of the most luxurious buildings.

Yet enchantment I’ve found – in the old town of Hoi An. Here you get an idea of how Vietnamese smalltown life must have been many decades ago.

Hoi An used to be an important Vietnamese trading port from the 15th to the 19th century. Today, it deems like an ethnological open-air museum for merchants’ life in Southeast Asia: Streets and alleys lined with beautiful ancient houses, one cuter than the other, arranged around a huge covered market in the center and a vibrant street market right next to river Thu Bon.

Fruit vendors in Hoi An
Fruit vendors.

Considering the Vietnamese way of driving, it’s very relaxing that in the very center of the historic district only bicycles are the only allowed vehicles.

Everybody seems to be riding a bike – some with a motor, others without.

The old temples and clans’ assembly halls guide you back to another fascinating social system.

Trung Hoa is the oldest Assembly Hall of Hoi An, dating back to 1741.

At the tourist center (see below) you can buy a ticket that grants you access to a couple of different halls, houses, temples, and the old Japanese bridge; not to be missed!

The iconic covered Japanese Bridge is even Hoi An’s logo. It crosses just a small creek and leads from the Trần Phú road into the Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai road, both very busy and full of shops, cafés, and historic buildings. Almost at the end of  Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai road….
….is another architectonic jewel, namely the temple Đình Cẩm Phô  

Hoi An Tourism 
567 Hai Ba Trung St
Hoi An
Phone: + 84 – 510 – 222 27 73

Most of the buildings along the main streets in the old town offer a wide range of solid handcrafted souvenirs from leather, silk, or wood. The bags, wallets, and belts made of tough, robust buffalo leather look really cool, and the silken lanterns are not only pretty, but they can also be folded and easily carried home.

Old House of Quan Thang – since people still live in some of the buildings, it takes a little not being intimidated by disturbing their privacy.

Especially the tailors along Nguyen Thai Hoc know exactly what they are doing, and they do it at an incredible price – mostly overnight! Yes, I got me an Ao Dai, the traditional female attire. And I was grateful when the lady measuring me mumbled I had to pay more since they will have to use so much fabric on me while she was checking the length and not the width…

xx tailors making my Ao Dai
The lovely ladies at Silk Road Tailor working on my Ao Dai (at least the one in the middle)…
Me wearing an Ao Dai
…and me proudly wearing it to the media ball in Hamburg.
(Photo: © Florian Büh)

Silk Road Hoi Han
91 Nguyen Thai Hoc
Hoi An
Phone:  +84 – 510 – 391 10 58

Of course, there are many nice restaurants serving all sorts of Vietnamese delicacies – my favorite is Bale Well on Tran Hung Dao, an unspectacular back alley. They have basically one or two dishes, but they are sooo good and plenty. The waitress prepares your first two to three Vietnamese rolls including chicken, kimchi, peanut sauce, and some other yummy stuff – and then you’re on your own; good luck with it.

If it doesn’t work out, the ingredients taste also good separately.

Vietnamese Dinner
Boy, she was fast preparing the Vietnamese rolls for me! I wasn’t even able to capture her hands.

After the culinary culture, some dramatic art was on my program. I cycled to the theater to see the traditional water puppet theater which is quite cute with lots of splashing and pyrotechnics.

Hoi An Water Puppet Show
548 Hai BàTrưng
Hoi An
Phone: +84 – 235 – 386 13 27; +84 – 941 – 37 89 79 (hotline)

The show takes place on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday, starts at 6.30 p. m. and finishes at 7.15 p. m.

Everything was great, happy got lucky – until the next day.

While the early morning was still fine – I went on a tour to My Son, the remnants of the Cham’s most important religious center – very interesting site, lovely guide, nice co-travellers.

Remnants of the Cham Temple My Son. Reminds you of Angkor Wat? Well, the Cham actually conquered Angkor in the 12th century and stayed for a while.

Only on the boat ride back a heavy rain started – and didn’t stop for the next days. Therefore I wasn’t able to cycle to the nearby beach or even explore a little more of Hoi An’s beauty.

Rowing river Thu Bon
Idyllic Hoi An.

I need to come back.

Almost everything Hoi An is about in just one picture: Ancient architecture, fantastic food, and fun silken lanterns.
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Complete Guide to NHA TRANG

(Updated October 2018)

I’d heard bad things about Nha Trang – mainly that it’s the cradle of nasty mass tourism. But I wanted a couple of beach days on my route up North so I bit the bullet. And what can I say – it was not so bad after all.


Lobster Lady in Nha Trang
Comfortable tourist life: This lovely lady brings fresh cooked lobster and shrimps to the beach – melts in your mouth!

Yes, it’s very…developed, i. e. there are many big – probably all inclusive – hotels inhabited mainly by many big Russian tourists, who quietly hang out on the beach, so that’s fine. There is the classic touristy infrastructure with cafés and restaurants and souvenir shops. But everything is set up really nicely and it’s very well-tended. Along the fine beach runs a promenade with sculptures on trimmed lawns – if you’ve ever been to a touristy beach, you get the picture.

But compared to Mui Ne I liked it much better: It’s a standard, developed touristy beach destination. Period. Mui Ne is rather a dump – it’s not really deserted, it’s not really developed, it’s not very pretty; so if you just want a couple of days on the beach and for what reason ever cannot go South to e. g. Phu Quoc, Nha Trang is the better deal.

The beach is nice, but the waves are high and the current is wicked’n’wild.

Nope, I would not spend a three weeks holiday here. Yes, for three days it was absolutely fine.
I did stay at a cute little guest house in a back alley and did spend the days mostly on a rented beach bed on the beach. That’s the thing with this part of Viet Nam: the ocean is quite rough and there are big waves, so you have to be really careful.


Back Alley in Nha Trang
A back alley in Nha Trang – they sure have electricity here.

There is a city to be visited which is actually quite nice, but since cities were on my agenda everywhere else, I just went one afternoon. There is a lot of Vietnamese everyday life to be observed and a couple of sights like the Long-Sơn-Pagoda to be visited.

At the Eastern end of the city beach is Po Nagar. I walked there for about an hour along the beach; it was ok, but you don’t miss out on much if you take a cab.


Sleeping man in Nha Trang
Observation No. 1: Vietnamese are a very serene people and do sleep everywhere.

Lady working out in Nha Trang
Observation No. 2: Vietnamese are a highly sporty people. Everywhere you go, you see them working out. Here on the way to Po Nagar along the beach promenade.

The temple complex itself is nice and uphill so you have a good view. Talking about views, obviously, Viet Nam’s cities mainly developed after the end of the war in the 70s, hence this shows on the architecture: big, socialist, charmless concrete buildings that now destroy the silhouette on our holiday pics.


Not that any one of the sun worshipers cares, but Swiss-born Alexandre Yersin, who worked with Louis Pasteur, developed i. a. an anti-plague-serum that he manufactured in Nha Trang. He died in the city in 1943 – and according to this monument, he still is remembered by someone.

Back to old architecture: Po Nagar is an ancient Hindu temple complex from the Cham empire, installed in the 8th century and extended in the 9th. The main temple, the ‘Kalan’, from the 11th century, is the last great structure from the Cham architecture.


Cham Musicians at Po Nagar
Cham musicians at Po Nagar.

It’s also totally worth it leaving the beach area and stroll along the streets of Nha Trang to see what life is like. Make sure to climb up the hill to the Long Sơn Pagoda on Hai Mươi Ba Tháng Mười, Nha Trang most important place of worship.


The reclining Buddha at the Long Sơn Pagoda seems to be very happy….


….with the fancy pedicure he got.

Since I had only three weeks for my trip, instead of taking the bus, I chose to fly from Nha Trang to Hoi An – respectively Da Nang which is the closest airport to Hoi An.


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Guide to DA LAT – the cool’n’colonial residence

(Updated October 2018)

Two nights in Mui Ne were more than enough, I wanted to get out of there. Again, there was the widest range of fares – for no obvious reason.

Coffee farm
Coffee farm with a view.

I didn’t feel like searching for the best price instead of spending another afternoon on the beach (where a resort’s watchman screwed me over big time when illegally renting me one of the exclusively for hotel guests reserved beach beds). Luckily my landlady arranged transportation to my next destination at an acceptable price.

My destination was Da Lat, called The City of Eternal Spring, a cool yet sumptuous scenic little town up in Viet Nam’s Central Highlands where already the French colonialists had sought refuge from the hot and humid weather in what used to be Saigon.

Till this day, Da Lat is a popular weekend and even honeymoon destination for Vietnamese people. this way to read the whole story >>>

Complete Guide to CAN THO and the MEKONG DELTA

(Update October 2018)

Going to the beautiful, fertile Mekong Delta is very easy while you are in Ho Chi Minh City. You can do it on your own since there are public buses going regularly. This way you can make your individual program – preferably to Can Tho, but it will take more time.


Floating market
Floating market on the mighty Mekong river.

There are leaving organized tours from HCMC daily – you can choose from a day trip to a stay / tour of a couple of days. I did a two-day tour, but if I had more time, I would have stayed at least one or two days longer.

Anyway, as always it starts with the annoying ‘who screws me over the least’-hunt. I guess you’ll get the best prices – about $ 35 for two days, accommodation included – at the backpacker’s district.

The Mekong at 4 a. m. – seen from my hotel room.

If you order e. g. over your hotel, you’ll pay much more, but you also get better service like nicer food and a more comfortable hotel.
I’m serious: At lunch, which is also included, they split up the group – those who paid less get just a plate of some curry, we who paid a bit more were lead to a special room where we were served different appetizers, crab, and a wonderful elephant ear fish.


Lunch at the Mekong Delta
Viet Nam’s famous elephant ear fish – and some fixings.

I initially had planned to do the tour on my own so I booked a hotel in Can Tho. After I made my mind up and went with a group, I kept my reservation and got a teeny discount on the tour; of course the cost of the hotel was much higher than the discount, but I didn’t regret one second: It was a 4* hotel with a swimming pool on the roof overlooking the mighty Mekong river, I had a fantastic breakfast buffet, and the hotel was located across the street from the famous morning market.


Hotel Pool at Can Tho
Hotel pool with a view – in the regular tour not included, but absolutely worth the extra money.

Some of the group had chosen the home stays that sounded fine and very Vietnamese, but nobody really liked it and the big disadvantage was that they stayed far out somewhere on the countryside so they couldn’t join the visit to the morning market.
However, I must say that wading ankle-deep through fish blood seeing frogs being skinned alive at 5 o’clock in the morning is not everybody’s cup of…blood.


Fish market Can Tho
Not for the faint-hearted: piles of all sort of (shell) fish – mostly still alive.


Market Can Tho
Vegetarian’s idea of hell: Can Tho market at 5 o’clock in the morning.

But this was just an optional thing. The regular program included a cruise over the Mekong, visits to some manufacturers (with the obligatory shopping opportunities…), lunch (where the group was divided in first and second class tourists as mentioned above) and rowing on a small creek.


The floating vendors are advertising their goods by tying them to a high stick – here it’s cabbage.


Row row row your boat gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily….


Riding the bike across a Garden Eden.

The visit to the famous Vĩnh Tràng Temple was far too short.


Vinh Trang Temple
Rushing through the Vĩnh Tràng Temple

Fewer manufacturers and more temple would have been appreciated – but that’s the problem with these tours. After all, for the price we paid the trip was excellent and we got a lot to see.

The next day there was the optional visit to the bloody market, an extended visit to the floating market, a trip to more manufacturers and great cycling through the sumptuous fields and gardens of the delta.


Floating market
Floating market on the Mekong river.


Man with rouster
Eye to eye with the Mekong Delta’s rural life.


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Complete Guide to HANOI and the HA LONG BAY

(Updated October 2018)

From the first moment I set foot in the street in Hanoi, I knew I would like it here, and I did. The old part is absolutely mesmerizing – what a hustle and bustle: everybody is rushing somewhere, carrying something in their arms, on their heads, on their bikes. Everywhere you step, you seem to be in somebody’s way. What an energy!

Good morning, Hanoi!

The old town located North of Hoan Kiem lake is so cute and bustling that it’s even not important to know exactly why this one cute house is more important than the even cuter one next to it – everything is so pretty and cliché Asian. Just walking around ist enthralling.

I wasn’t the only one having a great time in Viet Nam’s northern capital.

A mobile flower vendor coming through the old city gate Ô Trừng Thanh 

Hàng Vải is the famous bamboo street.

Then there are a couple of interesting museums East of Hoan Kiem lake. Coming from the old town, there is another super-challenging crossing: just stick to my street crossing rules that I wrote down in the Ho Chi Minh City part – just walk slowly and steady although hundreds of bikes and cars are coming towards you on Pho Le Thai on the Northern bank of the lake.

There is space for everybody on Vietnamese streets – at the same time.

Then you can walk along the Eastern promenade and turn left at the South bank into Trang Tien.

Balloon vendor on Đinh Tiên Hoàng. I wonder whether the people speeding by do notice him at all. 

Now it’s about four blocks to get to the Vietnam National Museum of History. Here not only the exhibits are nice, but I also liked the big yellow colonial building from 1910. Don’t miss the serene sculpture yard.

Museum of History Hanoi
The very peaceful backyard of the distinctive museum’s building.

Viet Nam National Museum of History 
1, Trang Tien – 25, Tong Dan
Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
Phone: : +84 -4 – 38 25 28 53

Museum of Revolution Ho Chi MInh Hanoi
Me and Ho Chi Minh at the Museum of Revolution;
usually I’m not so much into selfies with celebrities –
but in this case….

Just around the corner on 25, Tong Dan, is The Museum of Revolution. An auxiliary part of the Museum of History, this part of the exhibition deals with the resistance against the French, the fight for independence and of course the Viet Nam war.

Prime location: This barber simply uses the Revolution Museum’s fence to follow his trade.

Going North West of the old town you’ll get to the Tay lake with the quite impressive Chua Tran Quoc pagoda – especially impressive since people burn so many offerings that you can hardly breathe.

They sure like to fire up a lot of offerings – here at Chua Trang Quoc, but it doesn’t make a big difference where you get fume poisoning.

Before you walk South the intimidating Hung Vuong to the Ba Dinh Square with Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the B52 bomber and all the other memorabilia, make sure to drop in at the Den Quan Thanh temple, another very smoky, yet beautiful place.

It’s amazing: Since you burn everything your ancestors might need…over there, there are Chanel purses and Louis Vuitton bags, iPhones – and just money bills made of paper.
Actually, I find such an artistic tower of Dollar-bills would make a nice living room decoration, too; what do you think, IKEA?

I haven’t been to the Ho Chi Minh Museum because it was closed. But I’m sure they had a lot of good things to say about him.

There are two pagodas right next to it: The one pillar pagoda and Chua Dien Huu.

Before you continue to the Temple of Literature, I strongly recommend to get a cup – or two – of the excellent coffee at Café de Nam on Doi Can about half way between the B 52 site and the Ho Chi Minh Museum. It’s a very cozy setting, too, and the coffee makes a great souvenir.

Far from being cozy: The Ba Dinh square is clearly designated to host a larger crowd. In the backdrop Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum where I got in trouble because to get a good look, I crossed the yellow line. I’m not really made for places were you simply have to obey; I’m rather the ‘on-a-par’ type of person.

The Temple of Literature is accessible only from Quốc Tử Giám. I’m not mentioning this because I have nothing more interesting to write, but because I was a little tired walking the whole day so I was quite disappointed when I reached the site at the opposite side and had to walk aaaall the way down to Quốc Tử Giám. And now that we’re on it: The complex – a Confucian imperial academy – was Viet Nam’s first university and covers an area of about 54.000 qm/ more than 580,000 square feet.

Firing up the university.

Walking around is quite impressive because it shows how important and cherished knowledge and studies were – and probably still are. Also interesting for us Westerners how knowledge and spirituality were intertwined.

Shush – they are shooting a film on the Temple’s premises.

Going back East towards the old town, crossing the tracks at Ga Ha Noi station – and don’t tell me that “Ga” is not the Vietnamese way of interpreting the French word “gare”!?

Something to sing….
….and something to drink.
It’s quite hilarious – or a bit disturbing –
 that she is selling beer to the drivers on Thanh Niên road 

Just like sing gum derives from Chewing gum and bia from beer; I enjoy these linguistic capers very much! But now back to our walk:  crossing the tracks at Ga Ha Noi station you get to see two more precious temples – Chua Thien Phuc on 94, Hai Ba Trung and Chua Quan Su on 73, Quan Su. There are far more temples and pagodas in Hanoi – because it was not as conquered by the Catholic church as the South.

And since we are back to this dark chapter – just around the corner is the Hoa Lo prison tracing history from the uprising against the French colonialist to the release of American prisoners of war.

I’m not sure if  American pilots really needed any more souvenirs than they had already in their minds as they were released from Hoa Lo.

It is absolutely worth it visiting this sinister place, but get your information (also) elsewhere, some facts were a bit rearranged. You’ll find the building – that’s also known as ‘Hanoi Hilton’ – on 1, Hoa Lo.

What I skipped in Hanoi was the Women’s Museum since I had already seen the one in HCMC; but I’m pretty sure they were very heroic just the same.

Halong Bay

As important as visiting the city of Hanoi is taking an overnight trip to the famous Halong Bay. And it’s not just the myth, it is at least as beautiful as you’d expect it – no matter how many other tourist boats are cruising there with you.

Halong Bay
Still one of the most enchanting places I’ve visited.

Here again – if you’re not willing to pay whatever price, you need to walk around a bit and compare offers. Most importantly: Do not book on the internet; you will always pay much more than on the spot.

Then, I’d recommend you don’t take the very cheapest offer if you want to enjoy your stay on board and during the additional activities. You won’t do this too often in your life, so don’t cut corners when not absolutely necessary. Do yourself a favor and book yourself at least on a middle-class ship. I paid about 60 or 70$ for an all-inclusive two-day-trip and had a lovely time on an ok ship, a very friendly, competent guide and a nice program.

They take you to Hon Gai port by bus, there you get lunch and eventually there are some activities like visiting the Thien Canh Son cave – which would be nice if they didn’t feel the urge to illuminate it in terrible colors, kayaking, climbing on an outlook on top of the limestone rock and eventually relaxing and swimming on the quite secluded Ban Chan beach on the program.

kayaking Halong Bay

Overlooking Halong Bay
…and overlooking – a tourist’s treat.

After dinner, we did hang out on the deck enjoying the breathtaking views of the bay. There was the option of Karaoke, but…nope, we agreed on not doing it. Especially if you book a two day tour, big part of the ‘quality’ depends on your guide and the other people you’re with. Considering that, it might even be better to take a less expensive cruise since people on the more sophisticated ships might be more difficult to satisfy and complain more. I was with some backpackers travelling South East Asia after their work and travel year in Australia respectively their exchange studies in Singapore and they were all extremely easy going.

on the ship on halong bay
Captain’s dinner Halong style.

The next morning we visited a pearl farm and the adjacent gift shop (this is the equivalent to the carpet factories in Turkey…) and learned how to make Vietnamese spring rolls.

This is the program everybody offers, the difference between the tours is the state of the ship and other equipment and the quality of the food offered.

At the – literally – end of the day you’ll be enchanted no matter how much you paid for your trip to this mystic bay.

The “Lemon Cruise” was average and absolutely fine, although it does not tally either with the description online or the price: the facilities and the service were more basic, but I also paid much less.
Travelling by myself, I had to share a room with another woman, otherwise, I had to pay much more.

Sadly, Hanoi had been my last stop. I missed Sapa, but if I go back to Viet Nam, I’ll rather stay in the North so that I can still visit that region.

From Hanoi, I flew back to Ho Chi Minh City which cost me about 100 $ – it was a very pleasant flight – very recommendable if you don’t have much time to travel down South by bus.

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